20 Tips & Tricks for Studying for the CPA Exam

For those on the way to becoming a certified public accountant, you now know it is a long and difficult journey. For those just beginning, good luck! The most difficult and time-consuming task is passing the CPA Exam. CPA candidates must spend hundreds of hours preparing for all four sections of the CPA. Each CPA section represents an entirely different topic, creating a daunting task for anyone looking to start studying for the CPA exam.

I passed all four sections of the CPA with an average score of 91. Luckily, I did not have to retake any of the exams, which is a common occurrence as the average passing rate is around 40-50% per exam. Having personal experience dealing with the CPA exam process, I want to share valuable tips for conquering the CPA exam. I want you to feel confident and comfortable during the CPA exam process, and so, I believe the following tips will help you during the CPA exam process. Lets begin!

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Valuable Tips to Follow During the CPA Exam Process


1. Develop a flexible study plan

As I stated, the CPA exam process is long and difficult. Most CPA review courses recommend a total of 450 hours to learn all the material (90 hours for BEC, 90 hours for AUD, 120 hours for REG, and 150 hours for FAR). Additionally, that total does not include the time spent reviewing the material before the test. For such a lengthy process, you should follow a set schedule. However, make sure to remain flexible in executing your study schedule. Unforeseeable situations will occur that prevent and/or limit your ability to study. Do not panic. Remember to remain flexible and committed to your study schedule. You will need to sacrifice free-time in order to study during the CPA exam process. The sacrifice will pay off once you pass all four sections of the CPA!

2. Make time

As I hinted at above, you will need to sacrifice free-time. The majority of your time will be spent preparing for the CPA exam. If you haven't started working yet, plan to spend at least 8 hours a day studying for the CPA. Obviously, the hours per day will vary based on how quickly you plan on taking each exam. I found an average of 8 hours per day as a manageable and efficient study rate. If you have started working, you really need to sacrifice free-time. Plan to follow the work-study-sleep schedule, and plan to really take advantage of the weekends. Remember that the pain and the sacrifice is temporary. Work hard now and relax later. Lastly, I suggest explaining the situation to your friends and family because you will unfortunately be seeing them a lot less during the CPA exam process.

3. If possible, do as much as possible before you start work

The challenge of studying for the CPA increases drastically while working full-time. Therefore, if you are lucky enough to have time between your CPA eligibility and your full-time start date, take full advantage of that time. Study full-time during that period, fully maximizing your study time. You will be much happier while working if you are able to relax after work rather than study. Again, make the sacrifices now in order to relax later.

3. Pick a personalized test order

You may choose the order in which you take the CPA exam. Take advantage of this ability! Plan to take the CPA sections based on your strengths and weaknesses. Candidates tend to take the REG section first. In my personal opinion, you should start with REG or AUD. If you have more experience with audit material, I suggest taking REG first. If you have more experience with tax material, I suggest taking AUD first. I suggest this because you should save your strength tests for later in the process. For the second exam, I suggest taking FAR. FAR is the worst CPA section because it has the most material and requires the most time. I saved FAR for last and immediately regretted the decision. Taking FAR second allows you to pass FAR early in the process while also having experience with CPA testing from the first exam. Next, I suggest taking BEC. It is nice to follow FAR with BEC because BEC has the least amount of material as well as the highest passing rate. Finish up with AUD or REG. Your experience and knowledge relating to AUD or REG should make this your easiest test. Also, hopefully the topics interest you, and so, it is easy to focus on studying the material.

4. Schedule your test in advance

Scheduling your test in advance helps you stay committed to your schedule. The approaching exam date will motivate you to master the CPA material. Additionally, it allows you to choose the best date and time available because test centers tend to fill up. I suggest scheduling the exam about a month from your desired exam date. Schedule and commit! 


5. Establish a learning stage and a review stage

CPA material requires new learning and/or serious refreshing. Therefore, you need to set a study strategy that establishes a learning stage and a review stage. During the learning stage, the goal is to build a learning foundation. Do not worry about mastering the topics during the learning stage. You should master the topics during the review stage. Follow the links below, which focus on the two stages:

6. Take handwritten notes while listening to CPA exam review lectures

Take handwritten notes! Trust me, you will learn and retain the material better. Ignore the instructors if prompted to highlight and annotate the textbook. You will not want to review the textbook notes. Instead, you should take the notes in a notebook, which will be much easier to look over during the review stage.

7. Avoid the tedious and unhelpful study materials provided by most CPA review courses

Most CPA review courses provide an extensive library of CPA review materials. In my opinion, if you attempt to complete all the assigned materials, you are wasting your time. Focus on the beneficial study materials, and skip the tedious study tasks. Again, check out the link below for the do's and don'ts when it comes to CPA study materials.
CPA Review Course Study Materials: The Do's and Don'ts 

8. Do not obsess about the completion check marks

Many CPA review courses have completion/progress report software. Do not obsess over getting every completion check mark. This goes along with tip #7 because you will end up wasting your time doing tedious and unhelpful tasks if you obsess over the progress report. I suggest utilizing your own progress checklist. More on that later. 

9. Make your own flashcards

Make your own flashcards on important or difficult to learn topics. These are a nice complement to your notes and allow for a nice change of pace while studying. Also, if your CPA review course provides you with flashcards, plan to utilize them during the review stage.

10. Complete all multiple choice questions

In my opinion, the multiple choice questions are the best way to test your knowledge during the learning stage; therefore, do all the multiple choice questions! Also, for missed questions, read the reasons why the answers are correct or incorrect. The MC help to build a strong learning foundation. 

11. Allow for ten days to review before exam date

The review stage requires ten days. Plan to spend ten days reviewing and mastering the material before your exam date. See the link below for a guide on the 10-day review strategy.
10-Day Review Stage Strategy: How to best utilize your few remaining days

12. Take one simulated exam

CPA review courses provide simulated/mock exams. For example,  Becker provides three mock exams per CPA section. Do not waste your time by doing all three. Complete one full mock exam. This should familiarize you with the exam format and highlight your strengths and weaknesses.

13. Use the Final Review materials

Final Review (Becker) was my favorite review material. The Final Review textbook and MC helped summarize the important topics. You are able to finish the Final Review materials in three days, which proves very helpful in mastering the topics during the review stage.

14. Allow for an afternoon/evening of rest the day before the test

By the final day, you have learned and mastered the section material. Do not panic because you always know more than you think. I suggest giving yourself a break the night before. Rest your brain and enjoy yourself. Get a good night sleep and wake up ready to pass the CPA exam!


15. Understand the CPA test format

Do not go into a CPA test without any experience with the CPA test format and structure. Taking a mock exam should satisfy this requirement. Also, the AICPA website posts a quick guide on the format and functionality of the CPA test. You do not want any surprises on test day; therefore, understand the format and structure of CPA exam. 

16. Aim to arrive to the test center 40 minutes early

I suggest aiming to arrive 40 minutes early to the exam. Leaving early will reduce stress and allow some time to find the testing center. Also, I noticed that prometric testing centers follow a first-come-first serve method; therefore, if you arrive early, you will most likely start your exam early.

17. Bring water and a drink to the testing center

The test is four hours. You will most likely spend between three to four hours at the testing center. You will get hungry during that time. Bring a snack and a drink to the testing center to enjoy during your 15 minute paused break. You will be happy you did!

18. Take the 15 minute paused test break

Because you will now have a snack in your locker, I know you will utilize the 15 minute paused break. Seriously though, I highly recommend giving your eyes and brain a rest. So, take the break and walk around. Also, it is a good time for a bathroom break!

19. Make use of the research tool

Many people do not know that the research tool (the codification library used for research questions) is available for use for all simulation questions. So, if you have extra time and good research skills, I suggest using the research tool to find or confirm simulation answers. 

20. Utilize the Excel tool

You may use Microsoft Excel during the entire CPA exam. The Microsoft Excel tool available functions like the Excel on your computer (it is not like your CPA review course). So, if you are proficient in Excel, I suggest using Excel for calculations rather than the four-function calculator. 


21. Use a CPA progress checklist

A personal CPA progress checklist helps to motivate you and keep you on track. I prefer a printout progress checklist because I can personalize the tracking of my progress. As I stated in tip #7, I do not complete all the tasks assigned by the CPA review course, which messes up the course progress software. The printout allows me to self-track my progress when I complete the necessary study tasks. Please see the FAR example below.

Please email me (textbooktax@gmail.com) if you are interested in a free PDF printable CPA exam checklist!


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  4. Hi Admin, Very helpful '20 Tips & Tricks for Studying for the CPA Exam' you shared here. In fact flashcards, handwritten notes during lectures, revision time, and many other such tricks are applicable to other exams like aeis, NEET as well. Many students do not attempt and leave multiple-choice questions but if no negative marking is there then one should attempt all questions as per their understanding. Sometimes students got stuck to a question and spend a lot of time on that single question and hence it affects all other questions. Mock tests also help students a lot for good preparation of examinations. Thanks for sharing such a beneficial post.

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